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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Revisionist history

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If Americans were to enumerate countries in which teaching false history is (or was) sanctioned by the government, the U.S.S.R. would place near the top. Yet, in 1988, the former Soviet Union canceled final history exams due to decades of inaccurate teaching. That decision affected 53 million students who were aged 6-16. (If only Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton were as wise and honest as former Soviet leaders…)

The Los Angeles Times covered the story 32 years ago. It reported, “The government newspaper Izvestia explained… that the extraordinary decision is intended to end the passing of lies from generation to generation, further consolidating the Stalinist political and economic system that the current Soviet leadership is trying to end.”

The Times went on to report, “The guilt of those who deluded one generation after another, poisoning their minds and souls with lies, is immeasurable … Today, we are reaping the bitter fruits of our own moral laxity. We are paying for succumbing to conformity and thus to giving silent approval of everything that now brings the blush of shame to our faces and about which we do not know how to answer our children honestly.” What stunning commentary from a state-run newspaper in a totalitarian society. 

Ironically, it was around that time that the phrase “revisionist history” was gaining popularity among political conservatives in America. While the phrase was intended to be pejorative, the fact is that what critics referred to as “revisionist history” was (and is) about correcting the historical record. As is the case with just about everything of importance in American society, the teaching of history has become increasingly politicized. Of course, there was little need for overt politicization when everyone was taught the same flawed, jingoistic “historical” lessons. (I am reminded of Napoleon’s famous rhetorical question, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”) 

America’s record on race, especially as it regards to slavery, is arguably the most controversial battleground in the cultural war for “historical accuracy.” Slavery, as well as the near genocide of Indigenous peoples, constitute America’s original sin — even before this land became known as “America.” However, only relatively recently has that view begun to take hold in our school systems — from elementary to postsecondary institutions. As was the case in the former Soviet Union, many American educators have first had to learn history for themselves before they were qualified to teach our children.

The fact is that history has always been subject to being “revised.” Indeed, such is the literal job of historians. The word “revise” has a Latin root that means “to look at again.” History is always worth a second — or third — look. Understanding this reality, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell created a podcast called “Revisionist History.” According to the podcast’s website, “Each week for 10 weeks, Revisionist History will go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.” 

Gladwell has taken a page — figuratively and literally — from educators such as Howard Zinn. Zinn wrote “A People’s History of the United States,” which has been both highly praised and roundly criticized for its “controversial” (i.e., mostly accurate) re-telling of American history. People like Zinn, Gladwell and “1619 Project” author Nikole Hannah-Jones cut against the grain of America’s mythology about itself. It is depressing that truth-seeking causes such alarm. Plato’s “allegory of the cave” is instructive as an explanation of why “light” causes disorientation, disruption and even pain.

This is easiest to understand if one considers the fact that people increasingly don’t even agree about what is happening in the present. (Was Barack Obama a good president? Is Donald Trump?) Some try to build a proverbial wall around certain established “facts,” protecting them from outside “invaders” who would destroy them. Yet, as the Chinese found out, even a well-fortified and high wall eventually will be overcome.

The teaching of history is important because it is far more than the mere memorizing of facts. History is an integral component of our individual and collective identity. We fight over history because our “story” helps to define who we were, who we are and who we strive to be. Fables and myths make great storytelling, but truth makes great nations.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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